I sat shiva a year and a half ago for my father and my husband is sitting shiva this week in Jerusalem for his father. My father passed away a week after our daughter’s sheva brachot finished, and my father-in-law passed away a few days before my nephew’s wedding in Jerusalem. Such is the nature of life, full of highs and lows, not always well-timed.
I have a pet peeve with people at a shiva house saying to one another, “Only at simchas.” It is a common phrase that you hear over and over again and it seems benign enough, well-intentioned, even appropriate. But is it really? Is life just about simchas and does the idea of “only at simchas” do us more help or harm?
One thing I have learned from my work as a psychologist over the past twenty-five years is that the “only at simchas” approach is unhelpful. Part of living a full, well-adjusted life is fortifying ourselves in our ability to deal with the pain in life and learning to normalize the full range of emotional experiences that life inevitably brings. When we are unable to acknowledge the negative emotions, we end up disabling ourselves and the people we love most. We short-circuit the healing process, for it is only once we can digest our emotions by experiencing them and engaging with them that we can move towards truly healing.
When I was sitting shiva someone approached me and commented, “I always thought of you as a competent, strong person, but when I saw you at the funeral, you were a wreck.” I was taken aback for a moment and then reflected and responded, “my strength comes from my ability to feel my feelings.” I don’t think that she understood what I meant by this but for me it was real and rang true.
All too often, people associate strength with stoicism. They talk about how strong someone is at a time of hardship and what they mean is that the person is composed and dissociated from the experience. None of us want to have sorrow in our lives as it is much more enjoyable to experience the multitude of joyous occasions in life and, of course, we all want to wish the best for each other and focus on future happy occasions. That being said it is important for us to develop a context in our families and in our broader communities to feel safe talking about and feeling the hardships and struggles in life as well. Shiva is beautifully structured to help provide us with this context.
Of course we all prefer to experience joy in our lives and most of us would like to stay away from sad and painful feelings, which is totally understandable. The ability to distract oneself from untoward feelings is an important coping strategy at times. But in the long run we need to provide ourselves with a safe place to also process our full range of emotions. While in the moment avoidance and denial may feel like they work, as they get us away from the pain, they are generally unhelpful in the long-term. I often refer to this tendency as the “windexing moments.” The moments we convince ourselves that it is “all good.” This tendency to wipe away the painful or stressful experiences in life is endemic to our community and society at large, and can be toxic and detrimental to our mental health. It can inadvertently breed depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD and more.
I ran a half-marathon a few months ago to raise money for an organization that works to remove the stigma from mental health. Perhaps we as a community can work together to promote mental health by improving our skills and mindfulness around acknowledging a broad range of emotions and experiences. In doing so we will be able to develop emotional endurance. Think of emotional endurance as a muscle which when it sits static and unused, becomes weak and atrophied. Every time we acknowledge our full range of emotions we strengthen that muscle. The community has the potential to support this mission and cultivate giving voice to normalizing struggle.
I had an experience a few years ago that in a minor way illustrates this. A friendly women approached me and asked me how my daughter was doing in Israel. Being on a mission to try and “talk the walk” of normalizing a full range of experiences I answered honestly that she was struggling as it was a difficult adjustment to be in an Israeli yeshiva, living in an all Hebrew speaking environment, outside of Jerusalem and so far away from home. I shared that she was very unhappy at the time and was thinking of switching schools. The women was taken aback by my forthrightness and was not sure how to respond. Her response was indicative of the limited emotional endurance and comfort we have with exposing ourselves and others to our full range of experiences. Perhaps if others had told our daughter more openly about their initial difficultly with the transition, she would have been more prepared and ready to face the normal challenges of the adjustment period. Perhaps, if we all began to communicate more openly with one another it would help normalize the negative feelings and increase our resilience and skill in dealing with life’s normal stressors.
Our community is so supportive in so many ways. I would argue that this is one more meaningful way in which we can be there for one another. Perhaps, at least in the painful times, we can all agree to lose the “only at simchas.”
Tamar Z. Kahane, Psy.D.
The Kahane Center for Developmental and Psychological Well-Being